History of the 101st Airborne Division

World War Two

"Rendezvous with Destiny"

The 101st Airborne Division was activated August 16, 1942 at Camp Claiborne, Louisiana and placed under the command of Major General William C. Lee. At the activation ceremony, MG Lee observed, "The 101st...has no history, but it has a rendezvous with destiny." While the first part of his statement was not quite true, the second part certainly was.

The 101st was originally activated on July 23, 1918 as part of the mobilization for World War One. Because weapons, ammunition and other supplies were scarce for training, the 101st was never fully organized or manned. After the war was over, the 101st was demobilized. In 1921, as part of a build up of Reserves, the 101st was reconstituted as the 101st Infantry Division and made its headquarters in Milwaukee, WI. For the most part it was a paper division with little in the way of real units and it remained that way until the United States entered World War Two.

101
Original Shoulder Patch of the 101st Division

 

The Birth of Airborne

In 1940, the US Army began testing the viability of parachute infantry units. After the first tests at Fort Benning, GA were so successful, the Army began forming Parachute Infantry battalions and regiments. After the British Army successfully used Parachute Infantry in combat, the US Army authorized the raising of 2 Airborne Infantry Divisions; the 82nd Airborne and the 101st.

When the 101st was formed, its core units were the 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment (PIR), 327th and 401st Glider Infantry Regiments (GIR), three artillery battalions (the 377th Parachute Field Artillery, the 321st Glider Field Artillery, and the 907th Glider Field Artillery). Additional support units were the 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion, the 101st Signal Company, the 326th Airborne Medical Company, and the 426th Airborne Quartermaster Company. In October of 1942, the new Screaming Eagles reported to Fort Benning GA for rigorous training in how to jump out of airplanes and fight a war when you land.

The training was intense. Not only did the soldiers have to learn basic Infantry skills, they had to learn two entirely new ways of fighting a war. At first the parachute troops and the glider troops trained separate. Later, in early 1943 they began to train as a Division. In June of 1943, the 506th PIR was added to the ranks of the 101st just in time for the Second Army Maneuvers. That training exercise was designed to test if the 101st was prepared for battle. Finally in July, 1943 the 101st was certified as ready and began to move to their embarkation points in New York. On September 5, 1943, the 101st set sail for England.

Preparing for War

After all of the personnel and equipment had arrived in England, the 101st began advanced training which included night fighting, urban warfare, German equipment familiarization, land navigation and many others subjects. In addition, the 101st established their own jump school to certify the new units being added to the Division. In January, 1944, the Division added the 501st PIR to its ranks bringing its fighting strength to 3 Parachute and 2 Glider Infantry Regiments. The Division suffered a major blow to morale when MG Lee suffered a heart attack and was forced to return to the United States. His replacement was Major General Maxwell Taylor.

1944

In March of 1944, a demonstration of American military power was staged for English Prime Minister Winston Churchill, Supreme Allied Commander General Eisenhower, and dozens of high ranking civilian and military officials. The 101st was tasked with demonstrating the newest weapon in the American Army, the Airborne Division. Because Taylor was new to the Division he ordered the Division Artillery Commander, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe who would later command the 101st during the Siege of Bastogne, to brief the Prime Minister and Gen. Eisenhower on the capabilites of the 101st Airborne Division. As a result of this demonstration, the American Airborne troops earned the respect and admiration of their Allies and secured their place in the initial invasion forces.

Shortly after this demonstration, MG Taylor received his orders for entering the war. His Division would play a key role in the upcoming invasion of France, Operation OVERLORD. Training intensified and culminated with three large scale operations designed to familiarize the soldiers with conditions they would encounter in France. Finally in May of 1944, the 101st left their training areas for their staging and jump-off points.

 

The Mission

The 101st was given the mission of landing behind enemy lines in the area designated at UTAH beach on the Cherbourg Peninsula. Once on the ground they were to clear the exit points from UTAH for the 4th Infantry Division's breakout. In addition they were to block any reinforcements from reaching UTAH. On June 5, 1944, the day before the invasion was scheduled for, the 101st received a visit from General Dwight Eisenhower, the Supreme Allied Commander. At that visit, he asked if there was anyone from Kansas. A young Private raised his hand and Eisenhower replied "Go get 'em Kansas!".

Utah

 

 

D-Day, June 6, 1944

Ike
Gen. Eisenhower with the 101st just before D-Day.

At 10:15 pm, June 5, 1944, 6,600 soldiers of the 101st Airborne Division began taking off aboard 1,432 C-47 transport aircraft from England. Shortly after midnight, the C-47s were over UTAH and the 101st Paratroops began hitting the silk. Problems began immediately. Because of heavy enemy fire, many of the transports had taken evasive action and could not find the proper drop zones. In addition, dense fog blanketed the area. The Pathfinder teams which had dropped an hour before had done their best but could not mark all of the drop zones in time.

By the time the paratroops were on the ground, 1,500 had been killed or captured. About 60% of their equipment had been either dropped into swamps or dropped into enemy hands. Despite these problems, the remaining soldiers began to rally around their leaders. MG Taylor managed to scratch together a force mainly comprised of officers and set about capturing one of the causeways leading to UTAH. Just before they attacked, Taylor was heard to comment "Never were so few lead by so many." Despite being heavy on brass, the small force managed to capture the causeway after a brief skirmish.

Throughout the area, small groups of soldiers began forming ad-hoc units to carry out their objectives. Ltc. Robert Cole, commander of the 3rd Battalion 502nd PIR managed to scrape together a force of roughly 75 men. Most were from his unit but several were from the 506th PIR and even the 82nd Airborne. Once assembled, the force marched for the northern exits from UTAH. Along the way, they encountered a German convoy and attacked it. 10 Germans were captured and many more killed. Upon reaching St. Martin de Varreville, Cole sent a reconnaissance party forward to check the coastal battery. Discovering that the position had been destroyed and deserted, Cole split his force to seize the 2 exits from UTAH. Once his troops were in place, the dug in to wait for the 4th Infantry Division.

South of 3rd Battalion, LTC Patrick Cassidy was rallying his men from 1st Battalion, 502nd PIR. Like, Cole, Cassidy put together a combined force of some of his men and others separated from their units. A patrol was sent forward to check the other northern exits from UTAH. These had also been heavily damaged and deserted and Cassidy reinforced it. Still further south, the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 506th PIR were fighting to secure the southern exits from UTAH. Despite missing their drop zones, these units had not been as widely dispersed as the 502nd. The men of the 506th had to fight through several small villages on their way to the exits. As they approached their objectives, the exits were under attack already from the 8th Infantry, 4th Infantry Division. The paratroops joined the fight and the exits were secured. Germans began surrendering en-masse at the southern end of UTAH.

Carentan

By late afternoon on D-Day, the 4th Division had broken free from UTAH and linked up with the 101st. That night, with the beachhead secured, the Americans dug in for the night and attempted to rally the rest of their troops. The next day, the 101st received new orders. V Corps, which had landed at OMAHA to the south has holding on to a very small beachhead and could not exit from the beach. Between UTAH and OMAHA was the town of Carentan. The 101st was ordered to break through their southern flank, seize Carentan and link up with the forces at OMAHA.

Their first objective was the town of St. Come du Mont and would use 4 battalions; the 1st and 2nd Battalions, 506th PIR, the 3rd Battalion 502st PIR and the 1st Battalion 401st GIR. The attack stepped off early in the morning of June 8. By mid-morning, the approaches to St. Come du Mont had been cleared and defensive positions established east of the town. 3/501 had reached the Carentan highway and the enemy began withdrawing from the area. Later that evening, the force was reinforced by the fresh 327th GIR. The next objective was to establish bridgeheads across the Douve river. At 1:00 am, June 10, the 101st attacked and by dawn, St. Come du Mont had been encircled and cleared of enemy forces. The drive now focused on Carentan. Here the drive was slowed considerably. Most of the brides and causeways leading to Carentan had been destroyed. Only one causeway was completely intact. The engineers began working under heavy enemy fire to repair the others.

Several patrols were sent forward to scout the approaches to Carentan and came under heavy fire. Finally, 3/502 began to cross the causeways in force in the face of intense enemy fire. The paratroops managed to cross to the the edges of Carentan but could not enter the town. For two days, the 3/502 fought against massed machine gun and artillery fire to establish a foothold on Carentan.

BG McAuliffe Briefs Glider Crews
Brigadier General Anthony C. McAuliffe, artillery commander of the 101st Airborne Division, gives his various glider pilots last minute instructions before the take-off on D plus 1. England. National Archives Photo

While the battle for the causeways raged, the 327th GIR, reinforced by 1/401 had crossed south of Carentan and secured the eastern exits from the town. That accomplished, the 327th began their assault on Carentan from the east. Carentan was surrounded and being attacked from two sides but the Germans held. The attacking forces were ordered to pull back to allow a massive artillery and naval gunfire bombardment of Carentan to begin. At dawn of June 12, the barrage lifted and the assault began anew. 1/506 and 2/506 attacked from the west and the 501st and 327th attacked from the eat and north. Quick advances were made and Carentan was seized. 1/401 was ordered to remain in Carentan while 1/327 and 2/327 were ordered east to secure the high ground near Montmartin en Grainges. That evening, the 327th ran into stiff resistance at Rouxeville. After a fierce battle, 2/327 broke through the German positions and linked up with a pocket of soldiers from the 29th Infantry Division who had been surrounded. 2/327 the linked up with 1/327 and captured the heights.

By June 14, UTAH and OMAHA had been completely linked. The Germans had launched several counter-attacks at Carentan but were brutally repulsed. The 101st had linked the forces landing at OMAHA and UTAH. The 502nd PIR had linked up with the 82nd Airborne and the 4th Infantry Divisions while the 327th had linked up with the 29th and 1st Infantry Divisions at OMAHA. On June 15, the 101st was transferred to VIII Corps and given the responsibility for the southwest flank. The 101st continued to fight in northern France for the next 3 weeks. In July, they were ordered back to England to prepare for a new mission; Holland.

Operation MARKET-GARDEN

In the summer of 1944, the Allied Armies began to encounter supply problems. There were plenty of supplies in England, but not enough port facilities to unload them in France. The allied command decided to focus their attention on the port city of Antwerp and devised a bold plan. The British Second Army would launch a ground attack on Antwerp while the newly formed 1st Allied Airborne Army would conduct an Airborne assault on the Mass, Wahl and lower Rhine rivers. On September 17, the 101st Airborne, along with the 82nd and British 1st Airborne Divisions landed in the largest Airborne assault of the war, 20,000 soldiers in all.

The initial drops were an overwhelming success, the Pathfinders had laid out the drop zones almost perfectly and the Germans were taken completely by surprise. The assault ran into trouble when 2 German Panzer Divisions launched a counter-attack at Best. Fortunately, the glider troops of the 327th and 401st GIRs had landed with over 80% of their equipment and heavy weapons. The German tanks were quickly destroyed once reinforcements could be brought forward and Best was seized. Meanwhile, the Paratroops converged on the Maas and Wahl rivers and established bridgeheads across both. Within two days, Operation MARKET-GARDEN had driven 50 miles into German territory. The 101st was relived by a British Armored Division and was ordered south to protect the southern flank from being cut off.

THe 101st managed to liberate several Dutch towns from German control while they repulsed several German counter-attacks. On several occasions the fighting was hand-to-hand in brutal street fighting. The 101st bought valuable time for the 82nd Airborne and British forces in the assault on Antwerp. By the end of November, Antwerp was in Allied hands and the first supply ship dropped anchor on November 28, 1944. The 101st was ordered into a base camp for a much-needed rest. That rest would be cut short by the German Ardennes Offensive.

The Battle of the Bulge

On December 16, 1944 the German Army launched their Ardennes Offensive with 13 Divisions. Their objective was to capture the Ardennes forest region in Belgium and France and paralyze the Allied armies in the west so they would concentrate on defeating the Russians in the east. The initial attacks by the Germans were very successful and the Allied front began to collapse. Units were being overrun all along the lines and the Germans penetrated deep into Allied territory. On December 17, the 101st Airborne received orders to move north to reinforce the key town of Bastogne.

When the 101st received its orders, their commander, MG Taylor was in Washington at the War Department and the Division Artillery Commander, Brigadier General Anthony McAuliffe was named acting commander. It was up to McAuliffe to lead the division in trucks and trailers 107 miles to Bastogne. When the division arrived, the Germans were already on the outskirts of the city and McAuliffe ordered the 501st PIR to launch a diversionary attack east of Bastogne to distract the Germans. It worked perfectly and in the confusion, the 101st Drove the Germans from Bastogne and established firm defensive positions.

The Siege of Bastogne

The fighting around Bastogne was intense. The Germans wanted it as badly as the Allies wanted to keep it. By December 20, Bastogne was completely surrounded and the 101st, along with elements of the 10th Armored Division were cut off from the rest of the Allied Armies. The Germans launched several brutal attacks on Bastogne and managed to enter the city on several occassions. Each attack was driven back however, some after hard hand-to-hand fighting. The defenders of Bastogne held out with everything they had. On December 22, the Germans offered to allow the 101st to surrender. BG McAuliffe issued a short, and now famous, reply. "NUTS!"

Pathfinders at Bastogne
The pathfinder unit of the 101st Airborne Division, dropped by parachute, sets up radar equipment near Bastogne, Belgium. It is their job to guide planes with medical supplies and ammunition to the division, besieged by the Germans. National Archives Photo

By this time, 5 German Divisions were engaged in the effort to capture Bastogne, but still the 10st held. They received vital air and artillery support including several air-dropped resupply. Finally, on December 26, the US 4th Armored Division broke through and reinforced Bastogne. The 4th Armored, along with the 3rd Army, had driven over 100 miles to reach Bastogne and attacked with little rest. Also on the 26th, several dozen cargo gliders managed to land and deliver vital supplies including medical personnel and equipment for their wounded.

As more units of the 3rd Army began to arrive, the Allies began to attack out from Bastogne. Slowly the German salient around Bastogne was reduced and the Germans driven back. Over the next three weeks, the Germans fought for every inch of ground. By January 18, 1945 the Germans had been driven from Belgium and the 101st was relived by VIII Corps at Bastogne. The Commander of VIII Corps issued a receipt to MG Taylor upon his return to command of the Division. It read:

Received from the 101st Airborne Division:
the town of Bastogne, Luxembourg Province, Belgium.
Condition: Used but serviceable

 

For the heroic defense of Bastogne, the 101st Airborne Division was awarded the Distinguished Unit Citation, the first ever to be awarded to an entire Division. 

Following the siege of Bastogne, the 101st Was ordered into the Ruhr area of Germany, but without the 501st PIR. The 501st was ordered into Reserve for a special mission. They began training for a possible rescue attempt of Allied prisoners of war. Due to a shortage of transport aircraft and the relatively low priority of the mission, it was never mounted.

The 101st became part of a blocking force that later became known as the "reduction of the Ruhr Pocket." An entire German Army Group was set up in the Ruhr River region of Germany and was one of only a very few cohesive German units remaining. In the beginning of April, 1945, the US First and Ninth Armies attacked the Ruhr Pocket. Knowing that retreat meant more German soil lost to the Allies, the Germans fought with everything they had, but they could not hold. They were desperately short of supplies with virtually no hope of receiving more. They could not withstand the onslaught of the American Armies.

By the end of April, the entire German force had been eliminated and the Allied forces had captured 325,000 prisoners. The final mission for the 101st came at the end of April. Teaming up with the 3rd Infantry Division they assaulted Hitler's vacation retreat at Berchtesgaden. Here the Division accepted the surrender of the German XIII SS and LXXXII Corps. The 101st also captured several key member of the Nazi Regime who were later brought before the War Crimes Tribunal at the Hague. The 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment captured Field Marshal Albert Kesselring, commander-in-chief of the Nazi party. The 502nd Parachute Infantry Regiment captured Julius Streicher, the anti-Semitic editor of Der Sturmer, and Obergruppenfuhrer Karl Oberg, the chief of German SS in occupied France. Colonel General Heinz Guderian, a leading armor expert, was also captured.

Aftermath

During World War Two, the 101st Airborne Division spent 214 days in combat. In addition to 2 Medals of Honor awarded to Soldiers of the 101st, the Division awarded 47 Distinguished Service Crosses, 516 Silver Stars and 6,977 Bronze Stars. The Division was responsible for capturing 29, 527 Enemy soldiers. The price of victory was high. 2,043 Screaming Eagles were killed in action and 7,976 were wounded. 1,193 became MIA and 336 were taken prisoner. During the war, the following units were part of the Division's "Rendezvous with Destiny."

501st, 502nd and 506th Parachute Infantry Regiments, 327th and 401st Glider Infantry Regiments, 101st Parachute Maintenance Battalion, 326th Airborne Engineer Battalion, 326th Airborne Medical Company, 81st Airborne Antiaircraft Artillery Battalion, 101st Airborne Division Artillery, 321st Glider Field Artillery Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, 463d Parachute Field Artillery Battalion, 907th Glider Field Artillery Battalion, 101st Ordnance Company, 426th Quartermaster Company, 101st Signal Company, Military Police Platoon, Headquarters Company, and a Reconnaissance Platoon